School House Unique … the name says it all
Our changing world created an opportunity for a Colorado couple to relocate, pursue their dreams, and make Wisconsin their home
TINA L. SCOTT
Very literally set in a former school house now located at N721 Range Line Rd., Merrill, in the Town of Pine River, School House Unique is the name of a unique gift shop that offers handcrafted items from area artisans, antiques, and unique finds you’re not likely to find anywhere else.
The school house building itself was most recently used for a Sunday School before being moved to its current location years ago and was likely moved more than once over the years based on the history the owners have learned of the building.
The owners of the property and the entrepreneurs behind the gift shop and some other unique uses for the property are Kristin and Adam Kittel, who live in the home on the property and purchased the 20-acre parcel in May of 2020.
From Colorado to Wisconsin
The Kittels came to Wisconsin by way of Colorado after Kristin decided Wisconsin was where she wanted to put down roots, and then fiance Adam was set to do whatever would make his future bride happy.
Originally from far north New Jersey up in the mountains, Adam lived in the Appalachians and loved the mountains. “My first experience with a suburb was Colorado,” he said. He wasn’t impressed. “I thought I would be moving from the Appalachians in New Jersey, to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.”
But it didn’t work that way if you wanted a job in IT back then, he said.
Kristin was born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in a tiny town in extreme northern California. As an adult, she spent time there and really “all over the country.” But the two found each other in Colorado and then they decided it was time to move on.
“I think both of us wanted to move off of the Colorado front range,” Adam said. “It’s getting very crowded and not a real desirable place to live.” They were living north of Denver between Boulder and Denver.
Adam spoke about the forests being cleared and the area being built up, and Kristin spoke about her job working as the manager at a big-box store in a high-crime area of Denver, her stress and fear just going to work each day, and the long 45 to 90-minute commute. “I was dealing a lot with drug addicts, I was dealing with homeless, I was dealing with thieves that came into the store… and it got to the point where I was afraid. I was afraid to go to work. I was afraid to leave work to go to my car. I was afraid to go anywhere by myself. I was done. It was too much. It was time to get away from the big city and everything that was going on,” she said.
Adam was working in IT (computer software and storage, he said) in Boulder and had a 30-minute commute in the morning and a 45-minute commute coming home, but then COVID hit and his company had him working from home.
And ironically, COVID is what changed the game for them and made it truly possible to make the move they had been wanting to make. Adam’s company realized he could work from anywhere with an internet connection.
Now the hunt for the perfect property for them could begin. Adam had horses, so he was looking for a property that would be good for them, as well as the humans. Originally they were looking out west in Colorado, Adam said.
But “Kristin was always talking about Wisconsin because she had lived here before … She was talking up Wisconsin like a storm,” Adam said. “She kept talking about it and talking about it.”
Once they looked at real estate listings, “it was a game changer,” Adam said. The difference in price for the amount of land available and the kind of properties they were looking at–comparing Colorado and Wisconsin–was huge. So they expanded their search and enlisted a realtor to hunt down properties in the Dairy State for them to view.
They came out to look at properties in May 2020. Most of the properties were in the Eau Claire area because Kristin had a friend there, so this property was the last one they had on their list and the last one they looked at. It wasn’t at the top of their list because it was so far from Eau Claire. But once they got to the property and saw it, they were done.
“There’s just no way I’m passing this up,” Adam said of his thoughts that day.
“We were done,” Kristin said. “This was it.”
They put in an immediate offer, “in the driveway,” for the exact listing price they said, on May 14, 2020. It was accepted immediately.
The couple had been talking about getting married but hadn’t finalized a wedding date, and something about this did it for them. Kristin signed her name on the contract Kristin Kittel and then, “We flew home and got married,” Kristin said, to make it all legal.
When asked how they pulled that off so quickly, Kristin explained that in Colorado, due to COVID at that time, you requested a marriage license and then received it in the mail. They had the license at home. All you had to do then was fill it out with the marriage date you want it and send it back, and it was official. “And we were married,” Kristin said. No actual ceremony in front of a judge or a priest or anyone. When pressed further, they said they hadn’t even said any “I Do’s” … except “I guess she did when I asked her to marry me,” Adam said.
[Anyone who know me knows I couldn’t just let that stand. I immediately asked the pertinent questions of each, and they both officially said, “I do,” to the other while I was conducting this interview. So I’m not sure, but I may just have become an unordained officiant. Perhaps legal only in Colorado, though. But I digress.}
“We’re waiting on the ceremony until we can get her whole family up here,” Adam said. Kristin’s three daughters and eight grandchildren and their families live in California, Kansas, and Alabama, and Adam’s one son is married and living in California.
The Kittels immediately sold the house in Colorado, made three trips back and forth between Wisconsin and Colorado, and were officially moved in as of June 22, 2020.
The School House Unique gift shop
As soon as they got settled, Kristin set out to turn that cute old school house into her business. It was previously used just for storage, so they cleaned it extensively, added a wheelchair ramp, filled holes to make it airtight, and opened for business. Since then, they’ve added a nice-sized parking lot and a new sign, upgraded the electrical in the building, added better lighting and a new counter, and done a few other things to the place to make it more comfortable and workable, as well.
Kristin said Adam knew since they met what her goal was: “That someday I wanted to have my own little antique store,” she said, “But I didn’t want it to be just an antique store. I wanted it to be … a place where artists can bring in their work, and they can have it shown and possibly sell it or whatever they wanted to do. I wanted to do what I loved, and I wanted to have a place where somebody else could do what they loved.”
“And that’s what the goal is with this,” Kristin said. “It is to make connections, give people an opportunity to show their work–people who might not be able to have that opportunity normally–no matter what they do. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care what they do. I’ll bring it in, we’ll try it, if my customers like it, if it’s something unique, if it’s something individual, if it’s something handmade, let’s try it. Let’s see what the customers are looking for.” And if her place is full? “Then I have a waiting list,” she said.
That’s exactly what she’s done. “I’ve got some interesting stuff in here,” Kristin said. And the inventory is constantly changing, so you never know what you will find.
Currently, the gift shop encompasses as wide variety of items. “My vendors are all unique,” she said. “Several of them specialize in estate sales and auctions and are on the lookout for anything that is unique and in great condition. They look for crocks, primitives, or anything that they have not seen before. Some of them travel to other states and always find special items.”
“Two of them bring us antique and vintage furniture, all in premium condition,” Kristin said. “One of my vendors provides me with antique farm tools and anything that would come from the agricultural end of the business.”
Seasonal items are also great for Christmas sales. “This is the second year in a row that one of my vendors has brought in antique sleigh bells. I have strands and singles for sale,” she said. “She also makes beautiful Christmas swags with antique sleigh bells, and this year she is adding wreaths and kissing balls to the selection.”
She also features the work of local artisans.
“I am so fortunate to have some very talented artists on board,” Kristin said. “Ron Pankow is from Merrill and he hand carves the most beautiful birds, They are true-to-life size and color and the detail is outstanding.”
“Susan Bolte is from Gleason, and her specialty is stained glass and fused glass jewelry. Very unique and beautifully created.”
“JeAnne DuPuis is from Eau Claire. She and her sister create beautiful hand woven baskets that are unique and incredibly well done,” Kristin said. “They travel to other countries a couple of times a year to learn native weaving. They also have to harvest their product and process it before they can start to weave.”
“Mari Knaege creates beautiful hand towels, gnomes, and lap rugs. Jacki Hansen from Natural TyDE Solutions in Osseo–she creates wellness and cleaning products that use all natural ingredients and essential oils.”
“Cedar Creek Ranch in Bowler provides goat’s milk soap and amazing soy candles.”
“Kelly Collman is from Wausau and owns a small company called Platinum Candle Company. She creates the most unique scents in her soy candles,” Kristin said. “She also has another line that I carry exclusively called her Northwoods Collection. All are soy and use essential oils in the candles.”
“I also carry a line of handmade cards for all occasions created by the Crazy Card Ladies,” and “Last but not least: I also carry products from Ski’s Sugar Shack.”
“The business is growing well,” Kristin said.
Meanwhile, Adam continues to work remotely, and the couple has a couple of other business ventures in the works.
And she and Adam are happy.
Wisconsin is home
“There’s just something about this property,” Adam said.
“We’d sit there,” Kristin said, “And I couldn’t even tell you the peace. I was not born here, I was not raised here, but to me, Wisconsin and where we are, is home, and I am finally, for the first time in my life, able to put down roots permanently, and this is where I want to be. This is where we want to be.”
Adam said it took him just a little longer, but now it’s definitely home. “It took surviving the first winter and figuring out what life is gonna be here … cause I judge it by everybody around me … so yeah, I’m home,” he said.